How Balinese Gamelan is Made

One day, Balot invited me to the gamelan factory that made his own personal set of gamelan. I had to meet him in a small village in Gianyar, where all of the gongsmiths lived. As I told you in a later post, each village in Bali has their own craft. I lived in the village of wood carvers. Everyday, I would watch them carve sculptures of Hindu gods by hand on their main pavilion day in and day out. One village over is where gongsmiths live. Unlike the wood carvers where each household had their own “factory”, the gold smiths all worked at a few main gamelan factories.

Balot took me into the main pavilion of the property where all the frames for the instruments sat in various stages of completion. Balot then took me to the very first step of making the gongs: measuring the ratio of metal. Most gamelan are made with bronze, which is a mixture of tin and copper. Other lesser quality gamelan are made of iron. Even though iron is a sturdier and stronger metal that may last longer without chipping or breaking, bronze gives more of a shimmery and pointed sound that can be heard over iron bars.

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After measuring the metal, it is then melted in a giant open-air furnace. This is an incredibly hot and dangerous job. It’s essentially a pit of fire. These men are melting and forging this metal in flip flops and bare hands. All while calmly smoking a cigarette on the side of their mouth. I thought it was so insane they have been doing this for so long, they are practically on autopilot while sticking their hands in a pit of fire. They mold it, then fire it, mold it, then fire it again. Mold, fire, repeat, until the metal is in the desired bar shape. This step can take days, which is quite difficult because they have to make the bars all at relatively the same time because the bars need to be as consistent as possible throughout all the instruments. Because of this, its essentially impossible to mix and match different gamelan sets because they are all tuned to their specific set. Each instrument is unique and one of a kind.

 

After the bars and gongs have been forged, they are then tuned by scrapping off parts of the gong or adding extra bronze to the underside of the bars. There is no standard tuning for Balinese gamelan. Within a particular gamelan set, there is also a purposeful detuning of notes produced by pairs of instruments.  This results in a characteristic ‘vibration’ in the sound waves, a natural phenomenon related to electronic ‘phase shifting.’ To our Westernized ears, this would sound out of tune, but that shimmer is something almost religious to the Balinese. It’s the marriage of two different sounds that are opposite, but work perfectly together in harmony. The gongsmiths tune it to the way the buyer wants its to sound. Some want it more flat (low), others want it more sharp (high). Others want it way more dissonant, or out of tune, than usual. There is no wrong answer.

 

After the tuning process, the frames of the instruments are then built. You can have frames made as modern or as traditional as you want. The most common is a red base coat with gold accents of Hindu gods depicting ancient Balinese stories. After the frames are made and painted, the resonators are placed inside. Resonators are the tubes that make the bars “sing”. Imagine a Texas football game and you are sitting at the very top of the bleachers. You wouldn’t be able to hear what the cheerleaders are saying if they were just yelling. They use a megaphone to project their voice all the way to the back. That is what a resonator is for the metal bars. That’s how you can hear gamelan from even as far as a kilometer away! Resonators are traditionally made with bamboo, but because of the humidity and heat, bamboo has the tendency to expand and break quite quickly. The more modern gamelan are now made with PVC pipes because they are less fragile and won’t expand in humidity.

 

The last step is to string the bars and gongs onto their frames and BAM. You have yourself a brand spanking new gamelan set. As you can see, these are incredibly ornate instruments that take 6 to 12 months to make a single set. It was an absolutely amazing experience to see gamelan in the making! If you want to see actual video of this incredible process, there are videos at the end of this blog!

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Bali was such an enriching experience. I have never been somewhere that has so much culture. To anyone interested in visiting Bali, please look farther than the 4 star resorts and beach parties. Actually go out and listen to gamelan. Go see a traditional Balinese dance recital. Visit a temple. The culture here is just so prevalent and colorful. You cannot miss it. Thank you to everyone I met in Bali, this was such an unforgettable two months!

Next Stop: Holiday with Mom and Dad in Australia and New Zealand!

FUN FACTS:

-One time with Balot and some of his friends, it was dinner time and one of the guys went out to get dinner for all of us. The traditional way to have “take-away” meals in Bali is to wrap the fried rice in a banana leaf that is folded up around your chicken satay sticks. So when you open it, it looks something like this:

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-Women aren’t allowed to enter Hindu temples when they are menstrating.
-I didn’t just go to traditional gamelan concerts. Bali is all about the punk rock scene and I was lucky enough to see a couple of shows from the more famous punk rock bands. When you think of punk, you think of anger, go against society, stick it to the man or the government. In Bali, they use punk music to talk about social and environmental issues that are occurring in present day. Many of the musicians are political and environmental activists who use their music and local fame to create awareness of what is happening in Bali that should be changed and what to do to change it. You can see a really interesting article about the environmentally-charged punk rock scene HERE

 

GGP (Gamelan Girl Power) with Ayu and I Made Subandi…..and (gasp) more Indonesian snackies

One day, Balot invited me to go to a children’s gamelan rehearsal lead by his mentor, I Made Subandi. The rehearsal took place at Made’s house, where he had his own personal collection of gamelan instruments. I arrived around the same time as the children did for their rehearsal and watched while everyone shuffled in. Just like the typical American soccer mom, the Balinese parents would drop off their children, but instead of a minivan it would be a motorbike. Instead of a soccer jersey, they would be dressed up in their traditional Balinese wear, which is much more complicated than some exercise clothes. Every little boy is required to wear this outfit (pictured below) even when just practicing gamelan. It’s a sacred act, so you must be dressed correctly to show respect.

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It was time for rehearsal to begin. I sat in the front with Balot and observed how Made managed and taught the group of children. Balot would go to some of the students and play with them if they forgot a passage (remember, all gamelan in learned by ear), and Made would help keep beat or tell the group when they were moving onto the next session with number signs. When Made wasn’t instructing the kids (a couple of mere seconds here and there), he would ask me about my studies and what I want to get out of gamelan while simultaneously stuffing more and more Balinese snacks into my hands. “Try this! Now try this!” Made would say. He would eagerly wait to see my reaction after every snack. I tried a brand new fruit here called “salak”, or snake fruit, because the exterior looks like scales.

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Looks pretty cool, eh? Anyway, back to music.

All of the children ensembles I saw today were only boys. Traditionally, Balinese children start studying traditional Balinese art as early as age two. The boys play gamelan, and the girls dance to the gamelan. Girls are of course welcome to join the ensembles, but it is a rare sight to see a girl among the boys. I met one of the few female gamelan players who actually help teach the children’s gamelan class that I saw. Her name is Ayu, and she is 16. After rehearsal, Ayu, Balot, and I went upstairs to talk away from the noise of all the children. Balot told me that female gamelan players are still seen as taboo to the older generation. They are seen at the came caliber of the children ensembles and are not taken as seriously as the male adult ensembles. I wanted to interview both Ayu and Balot, but Ayu did not speak english, so Balot translated for me. Here is a picture below of Ayu:

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Ayu comes from a long line of musicians. Even though music has always been a huge focus in her house and her family, her father initially didn’t want her to do music. Ayu’s older brother also plays gamelan, and has been very supportive of Ayu’s similar passion. Her brother then told her father that he wouln’t continue to play gamelan if Ayu didn’t get to play in high school. After that little shock, the family then became completely supportive of Ayu joining Madu’s studio and the music high school in Bali.

Because of the negative stigma of being a female gamelan player, its difficult to get girls to be interested in playing. Unfortunately, Ayu didnt get as many opportunities to play as the average male gamelan player, but now being labeled as one of Made’s students, more and more people are wanting to see her play. She is seen as something rare among so many male players.

Just like Ayu, Balot’s parents didn’t agree with him being a musician, but more on the reason that it is not a suitable career to make money. Eventually his family finally came around to the idea because they trusted Made to mold and teach Balot. In Bali, if Made invites you to study with him, it is a huge deal and you should take the that opportunity. If Made saw something special in Balot, then his family has to trust that judgement and let Balot pursue music.

Made has an incredibly open mind when it comes to the battle of the sexes in music. He doesn’t see someone’s gender as a way to quantify their talent. He believes in the mind. The potential. There is more than just gamelan in the world. There is more to see. He is more interested in what is out there, while still respecting the Balinese tradition. Both Balot and Ayu have seen a significant difference in their playing and creativity after being taken on as a student of Made. They are taken more seriously and people look at them differently, with more respect for their craft. Because of Made, Balot has been inspired to become a composer and enroll in ISI, the arts institute in Bali. He has made Balot and Ayu really believe in themselves. Even though they both attend arts school, they feel that they learn the most here. Not only about music, but about the world and themselves. They have learned that music is more about how you respect one another.

Made teaches only a small percentage of technique, and the rest is learning from your emotions from the inside and learning how to pull it out of yourself. It is a process that is constantly progressing and growing. This process doesn’t see age. Balot, at the age of 29, has learned more about self-confidence from Ayu during their time here. He says you can always learn from the children, from their confidence. They see things more simply than adult. You do have to respect your elders in Balinese culture, but here, you also need to respect your youth. For Ayu, she has learned how to compose from Balot. From this, she has learned to use her music as a form of reflection and understanding of her inner self.

Just like Ayu, more and more women are being taken under the wings of gamelan teachers and given chances that were not initially there say, 20 years ago. Even though its still quite intimidating for the average girl to start gamelan, especially when the girls are initially put into dance as early as the age of 2, but women like Ayu show these aspiring women that it is possible to break through that barrier and learn. Many people are now asking Ayu to teach their children and want her to compete in multiple gamelan competitions around Bali. Opportunities for women are growing everyday.

I have learned that it is very Balinese to be competitive. Gamelan is an artistic war from one village against another. Sometimes, they even have people sneak over into the other village to hear what they are doing, and mimic it and make it better for the upcoming competition. The biggest lesson I think that Made has taught all of his students is that you need to play for yourself. Music is supposed to build you up, not break you down. He shows them that it is used for meditation, for positive growth, not only in your musical talent, but in your life. You can communicate how you feel through music.

What I learned from Ayu and Balot that day was absolutely priceless. As a classical musician, brought up in a strict ochrestral music style, college was a rude awakening. I lost the love of music early on in college and considered dropping it all together. I lost the fun in it. It did seem like a battle. I had to beat the person ahead of me. Something that was my therapy, my safe place, became this chore. Into my later years at Rice, I found more of a rhythm on how to turn out results and eventually get into the groove of enjoying the music I previously feared to play. But my self confidence really didn’t kick in until I graduated and went to Music Academy International before my Zeff year. That was the first time I was playing not to prove to anyone that I was worthy of being there. I was playing for myself. And I played so much better than I ever had.

Sitting there with Balot and Ayu really reinforced that mentality I recently discovered. As Balot said, its a process that will never stop forming and growing. My interview with Balot and Ayu was truly eye opening for me. Even on the other side of the world, people deal with the same problems and work through them the same way. When you enjoy the music you play, people around you will also enjoy it and feel the joy that you are radiating.

Thank you Balot and Ayu for an amazing day!

STORY TIME
-I legit fell in a hole at night on the way to visit my friend for dinner. Like Alice in Wonderland style. After falling and screaming and flinging my phone across the road, an Aussie man laughed because he thought I tripped, then I heard a “Oh shoot, shes like down”. Then his family came to help me and a nice Balinese boy came to personally wipe all the blood off my legs. Never have I thought that I had to use the excuse, “Sorry I’m late, I fell in a hole” ever in my life.
-Finding people’s houses in Bali is near impossible for me because 1) I was driving a little scooter everywhere and depending on google maps yelling into my ear, 2) there are streets that exist in real life, but Google doesn’t consider them to be real in maps, and lastly, 3) you have to watch out for herds of ducks that run through the rice paddies or dogs that decide to take naps in the middle of the road.
-I was mugged by a monkey at the Uluwatu Temple. I leaned up against a wall to attempt to take an artsy picture of another monkey and then I see a little monkey hand come across my face and take my glasses. Then he proceeded to eat my glasses and then a Balinese man came up to the monkey with a banana and threw it at the monkey and grabbed my glasses. Positive reinforcement. Spoiled little furry devils.

Balot and Insitu Recordings

I met many new friends through the Narwastu Gamelan Ensemble. Many were Westerners who were studying gamelan for a year at the local university, the Indonesian Institute of the Arts. One night, they invited me out to an album release of record that was a compilation of new music by Balinese composers on traditional gamelan instruments.

I arrived to the record release party right on time as per the Facebook event, still used to the precision of Korean time. I forgot that the Balinese are on island time, which means the event wouldn’t start for another hour. The venue was also a coffee bar, so I got a coffee and sat there by myself watching everyone set up for the release party. Trying to not look as awkward as I felt, I began to talk to one of the local musicians there who was helping set up. Little did I know, he was the co-founder of the record label that was responsible for this album release, Insitu Recordings.

Insitu Recordings is not only a record label, but also an arts collective made up of composers and musicians from all around the world who share a passion for Balinese music. Co founded by I Putu Gede Sukaryana (Balot) and Jonathan Adams, Insitu Recordings uses traditional Balinese gamelan in new and innovate ways to create an entirely new sub-group of music. From playing Bach inventions on one of the various metallaphones, to adding an American style rock band to a traditional gamelan gong kebyar ensemble, Insitu is giving traditional Balinese gamelan music a fresh coat of paint and creating something new and exciting anyone around the world would enjoy. Every couple of months, Insitu Recordings releases an installment of music by various composers from all around Bali, and even some composers from the West. It is a platform for young and talented musicians and composers to showcase their music to the public and get their music out there in the international music world.

Balot and I ended up talking all night about what he wants to see happen in the Balinese music scene and how he want to change the way people view music here.
The Balinese are incredibly competitive when it comes to gamelan ensembles. Balot compared gamelan competitions to a war. He wants to change this idea of music being more than just a competition where someone is better than the other, he wants it to be more of a positive activity. “People aren’t playing for themselves anymore” Balot says. He wants to remind people that music is almost like therapy because it is a reflection of one’s self. Because of Balot and Insitu Recordings, more and more contemporary composers are allowed to showcase and celebrate their talent on a broader spectrum while still respecting the Balinese music tradition.

Balot’s over all mission for Insitu Recordings opened my mind. What if I don’t completely focus on just women in percussion? What if I go even farther? I realized that although it is good to focus on women in traditional percussion ensembles and see how they have essentially “stuck it to the man” in regards of playing instruments that are traditionally only for men. But if I focused solely on women-only projects, I felt like I was doing the same thing to men that they have been doing to women all of these years. They are 50% of the population. If they have a musical mission that interests me that is made for the common good of the community, I should research, study, and learn from them as much as any other woman I have studied thus far.

This got me thinking. Women are choosing now to drum; not just for the sake of drumming, although I know that is quite an important factor, but they’re doing it to foster change for the better in their community. When Nidhi, Michelle, Leontine, etc. taught children how to play drums, they didn’t just teach girls, they taught any and everyone for the greater good of their community. They aren’t there to find the next Mozart, however, it doesn’t hurt if you find one, they’re using music to spark change and hope to anyone who wants to play along. Whether you’re a victim of domestic abuse, have HIV/AIDS, trying to find your next meal, or just want to play on a drum for the fun of it, they are there for you, using MUSIC FOR CHANGE.

I had my aha-moment. I know it might sound like a simple concept, and that I’ve even done outreach for children during my time at Rice, how did I not think of this before? During those music outreach days back in Texas, I didn’t feel like I was actually making a difference with an hour presentation. Maybe I did for some of the kids, but the feeling I experienced during my first half of my fellowship was incomparable. It was more than a music class for for kids I studied, it was therapy. This changed the attitudes of many people and was then directly poured into that community. Music fosters confidence and hope in people who originally think that things aren’t possible, that things aren’t going to get better. By seeing and learning first hand from the amazing women in Africa, I’ve learned that Balot is doing the same thing, but in Bali. By using gamelan as a starting point, Balot has allowed many new composers see that there is more to see out there. “We need to gain perspective and see what is out there while still respecting the Balinese tradition”. Because of Balot, there is now a community of young composers and musicians in Bali who can collaborate and make music that which they can share with the world.

I was so excited that night that I had a break through. I had a new burst of energy and inspiration for my project. I thought to myself, “This. This is what I want to bring back home and do with my life”. I left the release party with a CD of the new album and plans to meet with Balot again, and got a celebratory Cuban sandwich and ginger ale from my sandwich guy down by the beach.

You can check out the amazing new compositions of Bali’s talented young composers HERE. Support the arts and buy some of the music! Be the cool hipster that has worldly music on your iPhone when you backseat DJ and everyone automatically thinks you’re deep or something!

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I have a “food guy” in each place I live for a go-to meal. Just insert a different food before “guy” in each country:
-South African coffee guy: His place was really close my hostel and we got to talking after he noticed me stretching in my really weird contortionist-ways with my arms while writing and yelled out loud “good god what?!” Then his dog peed on my white shoes. Whatever. His place had great coffee.
-Rwandan banana muffin guy: Another coffee shop where that monkey (pictured in one of my previous blogs) would just chill and stare at me…maybe he was just staring at my muffin. My ultimate go-to snack while working on my blog
-Korea fried chicken guy: There’s a little known fact that Korea is famous for their chicken and beer. Well, I thought it would be too lame to go to an actual restaurant by myself for dinner still at this point (I eventually got over that fear in India), so there was a guy with a GIANT wok in the main shopping district in Seoul with fried chicken made by the gods. Perfect lonely people snack
-Balinese Cuban sandwich guy: The sanitation was questionable, but I had an iron stomach after Rwanda. Plus nothing beat having an ice cold ginger ale outside the 7/11 with my favorite stray cat I befriended and would feed her the scraps. I swear I had human friends, too.

 

Learning about drumming and Korean culture with Halmeoni

November 2016

During my month in Seoul, South Korea, I was quite lucky to be hosted by my friend, JiHeon Ahn, and his family. I experienced local Korean lifestyle, from house slippers to highly sophisticated toilet technology! Even though I was only in Korea a few weeks, I was able to take music classes, attend various traditional Korean and western classical concerts, and learn a lot about Korean culture.
I became especially close to JiHeon’s grandmother, whom I eventually called 할머니 (pronounced Halmeoni), which means “Grandma” in Korean. She would take me to her traditional drumming and music classes at the community center and various concerts. Halmeoni constantly fed me her delicious home-cooked Korean food. Making sure I was well fed and happy, Halmeoni left sandwiches and fruit on my doorstep most mornings. She was the first to introduce me to Pansori music and other traditional Korean folk music.

Pansori is a type of Korean folk music consisting of a singer and a buk drummer as accompaniment (pictured below). Frequently compared to an opera, Pansori is much like a one-man-show where the singer performs an entire story consisting of various characters and narratives by using different voices and gestures. During this dramatic show, the drummer plays the buk, a no-tone drum literally translated as “drum”, and adds encouraging words as embellishment. (The words apparently were encouraging, although I never understood a word of it. But yes, I felt uplifted.) The buk drummer must have the ability to select and change rhythms any second, depending on the singer’s character at that moment. It is customary for the vocalist to be female, and the drummer, male. They are both seen as equals while in other folk music, either the singer leads or the drummer leads. There is an absolute balance of gender between the vocalist and the drummer

For such an old genre of folk music, Pansori reminded me of early 20th-century experimental songs like Arnold Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire and Charles Ive’s Charlie Rutlage. (For the non-classical music geeks out there, I recommend youtubing these songs if you want either nightmares or confusion.)Pansori is intensely expressive, almost like talk-singing, improvised without a real key or melody. It is all entirely up to the vocalist. The drummer chills in the background and makes sure there is a consistent beat, providing critical structure and cohesion.

One night, Halmeoni took me to a Pansori concert where some of her close friends were opening at an art gallery. The small gallery was packed to the brim. Halmeoni did not take no for an answer, she squeezed us to the very front. While the concert was performed, a man sat on the ground with rice paper and began to paint what I presumed were key words and pictures relating to the story being sung. This added an entirely new dimension to the music, making it multi-dimensional performance art. (Check out a portion of the concert (but here, the singer is playing a wooden flute) in a video below) I was so interested in the concert that Halmeoni took me to her Pansori drum class the next day.

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The next day:

Halmeoni and I entered a classroom in the local community center. There were four other students; I was the youngest by fifty years. Before any music actually occurred, we enjoyed various Korean snacks and drinks brought by the students. One woman brought homemade kimchi, Halmeoni and I brought sweet bread, one man brought Korean rice wine and warm tea.

Side note: Korean rice wine is strong stuff! I felt pressured more when drinking with these older Koreans than I ever did during four years of college parties. If my cup was still filled, they commented on how I needed to finish it. When I finally emptied it, they instantly refilled my cup. I propose American orchestras should adopt this pre-rehearsal snack and drink time, maybe even employ adorable Korean grannies to make sure all are fat and happy before rehearsal.

I learned various traditional songs during rehearsal, and I even kept up with the class! Of course, all the students knew the songs so well, they sang as they drummed, while I was concentrating solely on keeping my hands in the right area of the drum. Here is a video of my teacher, 황정원 (Jung Won Hwang), playing and singing one of the Pansori songs we were learning. Jung Won Hwang is certified by the government of South Korea for preserving and keeping Pansori music alive and accurate to tradition.

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Like what you see? There’s more videos on class in the “videos” tab!

With the rise of K-pop and the obsession with Western classical music, Pansori and other Korean folklore music is losing popularity. It mostly is enjoyed by the older generation. Children are taught how to play traditional Korean music in school, but my generation’s interest in this genre is quickly declining. Because of this, the government has found it necessary to appoint certain artists and musicians to preserve traditional Korean art and stimulate interest among younger generations of musicians. Pansori music is now seen as more of a cultural attraction, rather than a part of daily life.

At one point, I was able to to experience the general public playing and enjoying traditional Korean music; however, it was not in a concert or class. It was during one of the weekly protests in Seoul’s main square.

Hundreds of thousands of people came out every Saturday in November and December, 2016, to protest peacefully against President Park Geun-hye, during accusations that she and close friends had extorted millions of dollars from the Korean government and businesses for personal gain. It was amazing how absolutely huge the protests were in Korea; whereas internationally, the civil unrest was barely reported. Many of my friends and family had no idea this was happening in Seoul, other than knowledge of corruption charges against President Park. I think there were a few reports about it on BBC News, but the huge protests were not mentioned prominently elsewhere.

Each Saturday, the entire main business district of Seoul was shut down, in order to keep the protesters in one consolidated area. Police forces used giant buses to contain the crowds, and to block people from watching or joining the protests. It was nearly impossible to not go through the crowds during the protests each Saturday, because my normal bus stop was closed down due to road closures. Therefore on Saturdays, I had to walk through the ENTIRE protest to get to the next functioning bus stop. It was quite an experience, making my way through the masses of people.

Along the way, I discovered the protests were like a giant music festival. A famous Korean singer came to give a benefit concert after a few politicians spoke about the issues at hand. And then I heard of all things…. people playing the buk and other traditional percussion instruments! I decided to stick around and watch what they were playing. I was amazed to see first-hand when political chaos was happening, the people held tightly to traditional culture. It unified all Koreans. This was their culture, their music, their country. You can see pictures from the protest on the “South Korea” tab under “pictures”.

If you are interested on how the Korean public protested every week for months to impeach their president (which eventually happened), read Wikipedia’s summary here. It was an amazing feat. I feel we, as Americans, can learn much from the Koreans and how they peacefully persisted for political justice.

That’s all for now, friends. Next blog is about my adventures seeing the famous Korean act, DRUMCATS!

FUN FACTS TIME:

-You get cute little slippers when sitting at certain restaurants/cafes (i would have to wear the man size because Korean women have fairy feet)

-“She has a flower in her hair” is an old idiom for “that girl is craaaazy”

-ANIMAL CAFÉS EVERYWHERE! I went to a cat cafe and a raccoon cafe. Here’s a video for proof

Motos, Music, and the Monkey

October 2016

After the first couple of weeks in Rwanda, I stayed in the capital, Kigali, with Adam, a friend of a friend. By the end of my stay, we became the best of friends. I cooked a lot of Mexican and Italian food for us; Adam supplied quality olive oil, wine, and coffee!
There were a lot of younger expats who lived and worked in Kigali, in development or for non-profit organizations. I quickly found a group of great people to hang out with. The expat population was so small, I could meet just about everyone within a night out, whether Monday trivia night, Wednesday karaoke at Car Wash, or happy hour at Inema.

Motos

These friends introduced me to the world of motos, the practical way to navigate my way around Rwanda. Having a car was quite a luxury, beyond the means of most people. All the cars were imported with high costs, not to mention difficulties finding expensive imported parts for repairs. Because of this, even taxis were pricy in Kigali and they were practically nonexistent outside the capital.

The most common (and affordable) alternative was to hire a motorcycle, or “moto”. Just like catching a cab, I stood on the side of a road to hail a passing moto driver by waving or whistling. The driver stopped to hand me a flimsy, and sometimes broken, helmet while I explained where I wanted to go. Most of the drivers were pleasant, yet everyone was expected to bargain.

I learned that the key was to know how much it cost to get to each destination, to name my price before the driver announced a fee. If the driver’s fare seemed excessive, I gave a confused look and said, “Urahenda!” (pronounced Oo-Rah-Hen-Dah), which meant, “Too expensive!”. If a moto driver didn’t like what I was willing to pay, I was coached by my friends to walk away. It usually worked, the moto driver would follow me and agree that my offered price was fine.

After bargaining yet before hopping on a moto, I recommend saying a little prayer that you don’t die on the way. During my entire time in Rwanda, I saw about half a dozen moto accidents. One of my friends even had to take an injured moto driver to the hospital. But hey, it’s all for the real local Rwandan experience, right?

Music

The Kigali Music School focused not only on musical technique, but also on song composition. During each session, Yves and Chris split the music leaders into groups of four people, based on their instrument: voice, drums, piano, and guitar. The groups were given thirty minutes to collaborate cohesively on a task: Compose a song. Melody, harmonies and chord structures, rhythms, lyrics. Everything!

But that wasn’t all they had to do. Yves gave each group a prompt to write about, perhaps about children, the future of Rwanda, or anything uplifting and inspirational. The community music leaders typically taught impoverished children, children battling HIV/AIDS, and young adults coping with having survived childhoods during the 1994 genocide. These students struggled with overwhelming adversity in their daily existence. The music programs were intentionally structured to offer hope and vision beyond misery.

Chris, Yves, and I stepped outside while the groups went to work, to build confidence in their creative energies and to have greater autonomy. After half an hour, we reconvened into the main room of the school, huddled together tightly to watch group members perform their songs. After each group performed, Chris and Yves led everyone in open discussion. This offered additional experiential learning activities, how to provide and accept constructive criticism, how to learn and adapt from ideas generated through the acts of composition, performance, and observation.

Students quickly learned ways to make their songs more interesting, sometimes adding vocal harmony, changing introductory measures, spicing up percussive rhythms, or altering chord patterns. The music school was a safe space where everyone was encouraged to grow comfortable having and sharing one’s opinions. You could risk putting yourself and your ideas out in the open, rewarded when others celebrated your creation.

This was not the case at first when the Kigali Music School was founded. The initial groups of music leaders were reluctant to share their internal feelings and musical creations. They were quiet and reserved. Horrors of the genocide savagely pitted neighbor against neighbor. Rwandans had, and still have, difficulty trusting others, whether locals or those from outside. Yet paradoxically, after having gained their trust, Rwandans were among the most friendly, compassionate people I have ever met.

So understandably, Rwandans have become reserved, cautious as people. It hasn’t been normal for children and young adults to experience encouragement expressing themselves openly, to be in nurturing environments in which creative ideas and opinions are respected, tolerated, celebrated. Through the work of the music school, I observed students and teachers enjoying classes filled with laughter, storytelling, and genuine friendship. They were passionate, energetic, and bursting with creative expression. Yves and Chris were integral to this transformation.

Yves is the lead singer and composer of a quite well known band in Rwanda called Group Trezzor. Check out Group Trezzor and its music videos on here. Yves has been a regular at recording studios, dedicated to pumping out song after song. He motivated the entire group of youth leaders compose a song together and record it. I was there when they were still coming up with ideas for the next song, but here is one of their previous songs they recorded!

(Sorry, it’s all in Kinyarwandan, but you don’t need to know the language to be deeply inspired by this amazing group of young musicians!)

The Monkey

Oh, I almost forgot to mention the monkey. I did most of my work at a cafe near my house. It was a peaceful place full of lush greenery, with a resident monkey. Kigali didn’t have much wildlife in the city, although there were giant hawks that gathered to eat fruit from an enormous avocado tree in the garden, and feral street cats that ate our pet rabbits. So the single monkey was my one reliable, good animal friend. He chilled out in the trees nearby, watching me while I sipped my coffee.

 

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The Kigali Music School and me…teaching!

October 2016

My first day going to the Kigali Music School was a little challenging. I had no idea where it was, so I let Yves take the reign and talk to my driver on the phone. Rwanda is the first place Ive been where I couldn’t understand even a little bit of the language. Yes, not many speak English in other countries I’ve been to, but most people spoke enough English or I understood enough of my Latin bases to understand what was generally happening. Because Rwanda was colonized by Belgium, most people’s second or third language is French. So many Rwandan assumed I spoke French because I was white, but I told them I only knew English. It was kind of disappointing to say because many Rwandans speak three or four languages: Kinyarwandan, Swahili, English, and French. Continue reading The Kigali Music School and me…teaching!

Rwinkwavu and Ingomas

October 2016

As I mentioned in my previous post, Musicians without Borders (MWB) works with local musicians to “teach singing, songwriting, and music therapy, making use of Rwandan traditional culture to address the trauma of the genocide and conflict” (from the MWB website). Overall, the goal is to create sustainable music programs that can be replicated as a model for other communities in Rwanda and neighboring countries. This is how I met Yves, a local Rwandan musician who works alongside MWB as a teacher and liaison between the organization and the Rwandan population.  Continue reading Rwinkwavu and Ingomas